90 years ago, on 22 January 1931, the Basingstoke Museum at the Mechanics Institute in New Street was officially opened.
Four years earlier, in 1927, George Willis, the institute’s vice chairman, had made a case for a museum to be created for the town where the local community could enjoy culture. A visionary for his time, Willis was passionate about celebrating local history and the achievements of the Basingstoke community. His idea started to gain ground, when, in 1929, a £500 donation was made towards the museum by former mayor Thomas Allnutt - on condition that the council matched the figure.
The council agreed and with their funding and the donation from Thomas Allnut secured, the museum opened in 1931. Willis and his friend, John Ellaway, both donated local archaeological finds from their personal collections, some of which are still on display today. To honour his role in creating the museum and his contribution to its collections, it was renamed The Willis Museum in 1956.
On 12 June 1984, the museum moved to its current home in the former town hall at the heart of historic Basingstoke. Thanks to the support of the Sainsbury family and other donors, The Sainsbury Gallery was added in 2009, providing a space where major regional and national exhibitions could be hosted. The first was an exhibition of works by local painter and illustrator Diana Stanley, capturing Old Basingstoke in paint: one of these pieces remains on display in the museum today.
Willis’ vision and his legacy of giving back to the community have continued throughout the museum’s history. In 1978, a group of local residents formed The Friends of the Willis Museum and have been fundraising and delivering lectures and other events to support the museum ever since.
Jenny Stevens, who will be celebrating her own anniversary this July of 10 years as venue manager at the Willis Museum, reflects on the founder's contribution to the town: 'I wish I could have met Mr Willis. Whilst respected locally as a watchmaker and repairer, many people using his services wouldn't have realised he had such a passion for history and the world around him. However, he sparked a wider interest in Basingstoke's fascinating local history which has continued to change the lives of both residents and visitors to the town through his legacy at the museum.'
Part of Hampshire Cultural Trust since 2014, the Willis Museum continues to be a space which is accessible to everyone, celebrating the best that Basingstoke has to offer. Thanks to our volunteers and generous supporters, we are able to keep Willis’ commitment to the town alive 90 years on.
If you haven’t visited the museum recently, why not put it on your list of ‘post-lockdown things to do’. There is so much to discover, from the town’s rich archaeological heritage to more recent wonders including what is reputed to be the world’s oldest wedding cake – dating to 1898!